Semana Santa in Ayacucho, Cuzco, Huaraz and Tarma, Peru

Perhaps the most famous Semana Santa celebrations occur in Ayacucho, Peru, where the entire town participates in the Holy Week event. There is an added attraction for many celebrants: an anything-goes period in which no sins are committed.n Peru, Semana Santa celebrations are concentrated in the Andean highland villages, where the mix of Catholicism and pagan religions creates some of the most colorful and fervent festivals.

Ayacucho, Cuzco, Huaraz and Tarma each have week long observances, but Ayacucho is most famous for its Holy Week celebrations.

In Tarma, called the Pearl of the Andes for its scenic beauty, that beauty comes through with a flower-filled celebration. The streets where the processions will march are covered in carpets and arches of flowers, created by the devout citizens of the town. Celebrations begin on Thursday with the procession of the Virgen de Dolores, continue with the daily observances and end with the traditional Easter Sunday processions. A tradition for the artisans creating the floral works is to end the day with a calientito, hot tea with lemon and chacta (cane liquor) to keep the creative spirit warm.

In Huaraz, at the base of Huascaran, year-long preparations culminate in a carefully choreographed week of celebrations. Beginning with Palm Sunday, when an effigy of Christ is carried on a burro into the city, and ending on Domingo de Resurrección with fireworks and the release of hundreds of birds, Huaraz observes Semana Santa rituals with piety and devotion.

In Cuzco, capital of the Inca Empire, Semana Santa observations revolve around the Señor de los Temblores. Legend has it that the statue of Christ, sent by Philip V of Spain to aid in the conversion of the Indians, became emaciated and blackened following an earthquake on May 31, 1650. The statue, now resembling the native population, has been revered since as the Cristo de los Temblores (Christ of the Earthquakes.) The processions through the streets are colored by strips of textiles woven with gold thread that hang in the windows of houses, and enlivened by firecrackers and noise makers.

A different slant to the religious rituals occurs on Good Friday when abstinence is not practiced. Instead, participants feast on twelve traditional dishes, from soups, fish, potato dishes to desserts. Again on Easter Sunday, celebrating with food ends the Semana Santa observations.

In Ayacucho, the most famous and well-attended Semana Santa celebrations involve the entire town. The ceremonies begin on the Friday before Palm Sunday, with the enactment of the meeting between Christ and his mother, the Virgen Dolorosa. Palm Sunday is a festive occasion, with mules and palms waving throughout the city. During the week, daily and evening processions allow the participants to demonstrate their devotion. Following the sad rites of Good Friday, Saturday takes on an entirely different tone.

An open air market with crafts, food and music draws a huge crowd who enjoy chicha or chacta with a chew of coca leaves. A traditional belief holds that since Christ is now dead, and not yet risen, there is no such thing as a sin. Consequently, participants in Ayacucho's holy week celebrations use this time to party and behave as they please until Sunday's resurrection ceremonies.

With dawn on Easter Sunday, the religious rites begin again and culminate in a joyous celebration of Christ's resurrection.

Music, song, prayers and fireworks mark the day, and when it is over, Ayacuchans retire to rest - and to plan for next year's Semana Santa.

To take part in the celebrations, check flights from your area to Lima and other locations in Peru. You can also browse for hotels and car rentals.

It's best to have reservations to make sure you have a place to stay. Check out the Ayacucho Hotel Plaza or these Cuzco hotels for availability, rates, amenities, location, activities and other specific information.

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